Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences – John Allen Paulos

It is truly bizarre living in the time that we do. We are surrounded and enriched by the fruits of science, and yet science seems to be degradated, ignored, and even demonized. One wonders why this very same people, willing to ignore what science says about vaccines, start questioning the smart phone they use to post their conspiracy theory. Living in this era means always having these issues on your mind, and wondering what can be done to reduce the damage of this other half of society.

John Allen Paulos has a pretty simple thesis with Innumeracy – the inability to understand basic mathematical concepts and relationships is a massive determent to our society, and many of the worst beliefs of the people in our society can be chalked up to an inability to understand these very simple mathematical concepts. He offers up mathematics as a counter-argument to many pseudo-scientific and pseudo-historical beliefs, and goes through the work of proving why this is the case. More than anything else, this is a book about skepticism.

I am trying to remember how I felt about math when I was a kid. I think my experience wasn’t unique in thinking that math was a little to abstract and pointless. I couldn’t see how any of what we were learning would ever help us in our everyday life. After all, we had calculators even back then. The idea that if we lost all our calculators we would need to know how to do math in our heads again is a bit ridiculous. If all our technology were to stop working we would have much more massive problems that likely have nothing to do with math – like figuring out where to find potable water.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with a computer science teacher back in high school. he was helping me to print a massive rendering of a complicated piece of engineering I had made in 3D. He took one look at the parabolic reflection of an object on a chrome cylinder, and spoke for a minute about the math that the computer did to render it. He then said that if we lost all our computers, it would be a long time before we got back to this level of calculation again.

So that does bring us to the one thing the book is lacking – how to make math accessible and easier for the average person. I have sense learned a few of the heuristics that people who do math for a living actually use, and this has improved my life dramatically when I need to find what to numbers multiplied is. I have also found it to be faster than go for my computer’s calculator. I would imagine that a mathematician would have many of those things at hand, and it is a bit of a shame that they weren’t included here.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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